July 16, 2012

Planning a Vacation!

Going on vacation can be an exciting adventure for many of us, but can be a very difficult event for children on the spectrum. Many children on the spectrum need the familiarity and predictability that a structured daily routine provides. Take them out of this routine, and their sense of safety and security can fall apart. In addition to the uncertainty, going on vacation also can represent a host of new sensory challenges to tackle, extensive novelty to accommodate to, and ongoing social experiences to navigate. In his normal daily routine the child has learned how to accommodate and adapt to the sensory, cognitive, and social demands to make his world predictable and tolerable. Once out of this routine, the child often feels helpless in tackling the unpredictable challenges. It can be chaotic, scary, and overwhelming.

This does not mean that vacations should be avoided, or that the child cannot have fun. However, a vacation needs to be well planned out and the child adequately prepared ahead of time. Some things that can be done to make vacations run smoothly, include:

1. Prepare the child ahead of time. Make it as understandable as possible by previewing everything you do ahead of time. Get brochures, or go online, to the sites you are going to see, where you are going to stay, what you are going to do, and who you are going to be with. The more visual the information the better. You want the child to be able to “picture” what is going to happen, to make it understandable, and more predictable.

2. Plan out the vacation together. Sequence and schedule out what you are going to do, where you are going to go, and when you are going to do it. Make a written schedule, mapping out the sequence of events, discussing and previewing everything in advance.

3. For events that may get cancelled, discuss a Plan B, an alternative of what will happen if the planned event cannot occur. This will help hold off a possible meltdown if there is a sudden change in what was scheduled.

4. If possible, make up a little notebook of the events in sequence, and a list of what and when things will happen. This allows the child to preview and review, going over what he can expect.

5. Remember that any new activities will be draining for your child, even if they are fun and exciting for him. All new activity, especially if it involves novelty and socially interacting, will be mentally and emotionally draining. Try not to build in ongoing, back to back, activity. The child will need time to rebound between activities; to re-energize. This will look different for each child. It may be taking frequent naps, watching favorite videos, reading, etc.

6. Try to anticipate what types of problems that may occur and possible strategies for dealing with them. For each event, anticipate what type of sensory challenges and social issues may arise, and plan in advance what types of accommodations and strategies you can use to minimize the problems.

7. Plan on taking a coping skills tool box for the child, consisting of their favorite calming strategies, toys, games, electronics, and other accommodations such as sunglasses, earplugs, visors, etc. These will help the child handle long drives, waiting times, and events that may be taxing for the child.

8. If your child has a “security blanket” (favorite toy, blanket, book, stuffed animal, etc.) that helps them feel secure, let them take it along with them. Having something that is familiar to them, that they are attached to, will help them during times of stress.

9. For each day, go over the sequence of events, time and places, and what to expect, the night before and again first thing in the morning. Lay out a clear map, and don’t forget the plan Bs in case something gets cancelled.

10. Just before entering each event, preview (1) what the child can expect (sequence of events, who will be there, what will happen), (2) what is expected of him, (3) any boundaries, rules and limitations, (4) any accommodations or strategies for sensory/social challenges, and (5) what to do if he starts to get overwhelmed (e.g. coping skill, briefly leave the event to rebound, etc.)

11. Always have a backup plan in case the child has to quickly exit the situation. If there are other kids involved, you may need to decide who will leave with the child, and who will stay back with the others. You want to make sure that the enjoyment of others is not interrupted too much by the need for a quick exit for your child.

12. Plan to do less over more time, as to not overwhelm the child and give them needed breaks. Trying to do too much, and push ongoing activity may quickly lead to a disastrous outcome. Try to slow down and enjoy the moments, rather than cram as much into the day as possible.

Hope these suggestions help to plan for a fun, successful vacation! Take a lot of digital pictures and make a picture book of your vacation to review frequently. Review what went right (and why it went right) and want went wrong, with possible strategies to try next time.

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